Monthly Archives: December 2008

Barack Obama’s Political Philosophy

Photo by Aaron Muszalski; licensed

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 15, 2008, at

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A new political party has appeared on the American scene. It is the Pragmatic Party and Barack Obama is its leader. The platform is so new and disconcerting that many have not yet wrapped their minds around the implications.

What his critics fail to understand is that Obama is not just about be-nice politics.  He’s about practical solutions rather than simplistic party ideologies.

After two years in the national spotlight as a transformational candidate – captivating audiences, filling stadiums and talking straight about his priorities (the middle class, economics, health care, education) people are still asking if he has been clear and upfront with his politics.

One month into the transition, carrying references to Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan, people are showing surprise with his cabinet picks.  In despair, some suspect a closet conservative, while others are hoping for a liberal double agent.

Some Republicans are calling him a socialist, while Fred Barns in the Weekly Standard observes “he’s pragmatic so far in one direction, rightward – who knew?”

The public went along with the old-style reporting it seems. 68 percent of Americans polled expected Mr. Obama to be liberal. They have their reasons. Mr. Obama ran as a Democrat, after all. In our essentially two-party system, if Obama had run on a new third-party platform, he might have received 4 or 5 percent of the vote, or because he sounds remarkably intelligent, 12 percent tops. Obama ran instead as a Democrat, a pragmatic choice it seems, since he won 53 percent.

It’s also true that minority candidates are often champions of more progressive political parties and organizations, which traditionally labored to advance rights and protections for disenfranchised groups. True, but Colin Powell and Condoliza Rice, not to mention Clarence Thomas, were all Republican administration appointments.

Jessie Jackson ran for President in 1984 and 1988 on a rainbow coalition for a new kind of inclusiveness. He may have paved the way in part for the Obama presidential bid, but in sharp contrast, Barack Obama, ran on behalf of the middle class.

On the other hand, the University of Chicago, where Obama taught Constitutional Law, is a center of free-market economics.  Note too, that Obama’s selections for his cabinet and crew in economics and foreign affairs are centrists.  Centrists can adopt policies from, and forge policies which appeal to, both sides of the political spectrum, without being called traitors.

There is still no approved vocabulary for describing pragmatism in politics.  What’s that Berkeley’s Professor Lakoff said, until there’s a metaphor, there’s no word and no thought?

It’s about time that someone described this new party to the pundits so that they can start using its lingo in their coverage. Not that the President Elect has been hiding anything. He has said on more than one occasion, that he is looking for “what works,” or, when things look really bad, “whatever works.”  Let’s start describing policy, not for its political effect, but its accomplishment on the merits.  The words “results oriented” and “consequences” come to mind.

“Pragmatic,” in this context, is the opposite of ideological. Democrats and Republicans aren’t always ideological, but often are, with important consequences.  The mantra “Government regulation is a drag on the economy” rings a bell.  The notion of raising taxes to balance the budget during a recession is not quite ideology, but it is cured by pragmatism, none-the-less.  Pragmatism works against ideology and lunacy, it seems — an added benefit.

What should we expect from the Pragmatic party? It’s hard to say, but we should expect an Obama administration to look to the facts and circumstances of the problems we face, rather than applying ready-made doctrines from yesteryear. Obama doesn’t seem to care whether a policy is liberal or conservative; he seems to believe it is more important to talk about whether it will accomplish its goals. It turns out that many of the liberal v. conservative debates have already been, well, decided.

Take, for example, raising taxes.  This is done to balance budgets, but also to fund entitlements and spending programs.  Obama’s appointment to head the Economic Council of Advisors, Christina Romer, recently published a serious historical analysis showing that tax hikes measurably retard economic growth.  A pragmatist will have to weigh how much the revenue is needed in the short term against the eventual harm to the economy and resulting loss of revenue over the long term.  Not very exciting in a televised debate, but logical, maybe even “good government.”

Better let the economists calculate the optimal results, rather than have politicians debate raising taxes vs. lowering taxes, without really knowing what they are talking about. Politicians with ideology don’t actually have to know what they are talking about, but pragmatists do for they are only as good as the results obtained by solutions they propose.

Somalia — Foreign Policy Dilemma


(Link to my story about the April 2009 hijacking and rescue here)

Piracy on the high seas fascinates for its boldness and improbability.  However, recent hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean go beyond notorious criminality.  They are a warning beacon from the failed state of Somalia,where lawlessness may signal a new training, financing and launching site for terrorist activity.

Somali pirates have long preyed on hapless cargo ships and successfully negotiated multi-million dollar ransoms with owners and insurers.  In response, Britain, Russia, the United States and a host of other nations sent warships to patrol the Gulf of Aden where most hijackings occur.  Unimpeded, the pirates have reached out into the Indian Ocean, broadening the range of their attacks.

Environmental Risk

In November 2008, pirates took over a loaded supertanker carrying a cargo of over $100 million in Saudi Arabian oil. At a minimum, this escalation raises the risk of environmental catastrophe and broadcasts a new terrorist opportunity. Like Afghanistan in the 1990’s, Somalia is at once a failed state and an international time-bomb.

Long troubled by extremism and corruption, Somalia has recently seen battles between Islamic fundamentalists and U.S. and Ethiopian-supported forces. Meanwhile, Somalia has remained desperately poor and largely lawless. The Transitional Government controls the capital, but lacks authority and may not be able to maintain control as neighboring Ethiopia removes its troops by the end of 2008. Those that thrive in a lawless environment, from terrorists to criminals, are increasing their ranks and activities.

Recalling Events in Afghanistan

In March 2001, Taliban authorities, then in control of Afghanistan, carried out a highly publicized destruction of the 1500 year-old monumental statues of Bamyan, citing offense to the Taliban’s strict code of religious orthodoxy. Many in the international community were horrified at the destruction of cultural treasures and protested the disregard for international norms of respect for historical artifacts. Militant Islamic training camps were also under international surveillance, but were allowed to propagate. No serious intervention was contemplated out of respect for territorial sovereignty sacrosanct to international law.

In retrospect, had the outside world intervened in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, they might have uncovered evidence of the plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and White House.  They would undoubtedly have found the extent to which training camps were preparing tens of thousands of recruits for a worldwide campaign of terrorism. Later, when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan as part of operation Enduring Freedom, they did indeed find plans and drawings of U.S. targets.

Western powers are in no mood to expend precious resources on a quagmire in Somalia after the difficulty rebuilding and securing Afghanistan and Iraq. However, all should be cognizant of the signals coming from Somali waters.

Pirates have taken millions of dollars in ransom year after year. The recent increase in their attacks now threatens to make environmental catastrophe a part of the equation. The nexus between the Somali pirates and Al Qaeda or other terror organizations is not clearly known. However, Afghanistan is instructive; those bent on destruction may see Somalia as a base and safe haven, where international laws and norms do not apply.

Court Watch

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 2, 2008, at

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The 2008 presidential campaign did not focus on potential Supreme Court appointments.  The financial crisis, two wars and the Obama phenomenon tended to dominate media coverage.

However, the last four presidents have each appointed two Supreme Court justices.  With the Supreme Court often split on hot button issues such as workplace discrimination, abortion restrictions and the death penalty, the constitutional authority of the President to appoint a potential deciding vote carries great weight.

The U.S. Supreme Court may remain below the radar for some time after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.  There are no justices signaling impending retirement, and ultimately, the choice is with them, not the President.

Regardless of which justices preside, there are a number of significant issues expected to come before the highest court in America.

The Right to a Trial

Challenges to the President’s power to imprison people suspected of terrorist or anti-American activities may come to the Court from cases arising out of Guantánamo Bay or other detention facilities.  Lawyers have challenged detention of Americans as well as foreigners on the grounds that they deserve a trial even if accused of fighting against U.S. interests.

The lower courts have not given President Bush a green light on detentions without trial, despite his argument for unfettered Presidential power on security issues in time of war.  President-elect Obama has not made clear what his policy will be with respect to detainees, but a shift from the Bush administration position may resolve some cases without the requirement of Supreme Court review.

Challenges to Federal Regulation from Progressive States

Another important issue concerns the balance of power between states and the federal government.

A number of states have challenged federal environmental and other regulations that limit the states’ ability to regulate for themselves.  States such as California and Massachusetts have sought stricter environmental regulations than those enacted by Congress or enforced by the Bush administration.

The question in these circumstances will be if a state is able to make different regulations than the federal government, or will the the traditional exclusive power of the federal government trump state efforts?